Black Mountain and Stevens Creek Loop
Total Distance: 6.0 miles round-trip
Hiking Time: 3 hours
Elevation Change: 1,300 feet
People who live on the Peninsula are well acquainted with 2,800-foot Black Mountain, the peak that forms a rounded green backdrop for the communities around Palo Alto. The town of Mountain View was named for its vista of the verdant peak. It's always there, anchoring the background in the lives of thousands.
Black Mountain doesn't have a singular peaked summit; rather it's the highest point on long and narrow Monte Bello Ridge. It's also the most prominent feature of Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, a preserve comprised of a varied mix of grasslands, conifers, and chaparral. This six-mile loop trip tours Monte Bello and pays a visit to the summit of Black Mountain.
Begin your hike at the preserve's main entrance on Stevens Creek Nature Trail. The path leads a level few hundred feet to a stone bench and overlook. There you gaze at the source of Stevens Creek, which follows the San Andreas fault zone. Mount Umunhum and Shotgun Valley appear far in the distance.
Take the left fork in the nature trail, heading to Canyon Trail in 0.3 mile. Turn right on wide Canyon Trail, walk 0.2 mile, then leave that road for the mountain bikers and bear left on Bella Vista Trail. A wide single-track trail, Bella Vista Trail climbs steadily but moderately and bestows lovely views of the Stevens Creek canyon. Contouring along grassy slopes, the trail provides many opportunities for spotting wildlife. We watched a coyote gallop across the grasslands while two curious deer watched us. During the autumn mating season, large herds of deer are often seen in this preserve.
After almost a mile of climbing, you've nearly reached the ridge top. Bear right on Old Ranch Trail and in 0.5 mile you come to Black Mountain Backpack Camp, the only campground in the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. Four family campsites and one group campsite are available for backpackers who have obtained a permit from the district office. You must pack in your own water and camp stove; no fires are permitted. Oddly, the camp has one "civilized" amenity: a pay telephone, just in case your cell phone doesn't work.
Walk around the camp and join Monte Bello Road in a few hundred feet. It's only 0.25 mile to the microwave tower–covered summit of Black Mountain, elevation 2,800 feet even. Black Mountain Trail intersects with Monte Bello Road at the summit. This popular trail is for hikers and equestrians only. Starting from the Duveneck Windmill Pasture Area of Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve, it's an eight-mile round-trip to the summit with a 2,300-foot elevation gain.
From Black Mountain's summit, you have a wide view of the Peninsula and Santa Clara Valley. But the lovelier view is just to the west of the summit. To see it, follow Monte Bello Road for another 150 feet, then exit the trail on the right near an odd marker: a 15-mile-per-hour speed limit sign. Here, at a fascinating outcrop of scattered rocks, is the best picnic site and finest view of the day. Stevens Creek canyon lies below you. Untrammeled grassland hills spread to the north and south along Skyline Ridge. In springtime, blue-eyed grass, checkerbloom, farewell-to-spring, and California poppies bloom in the hilltop grasses. It's time to throw down your pack and have lunch.
After admiring the view, backtrack to just before the camp and bear left on Indian Creek Trail. You'll face a steep downhill on the ranch road with views of Indian Creek canyon. (Be sure to take the short spur trail on the left to see more of the densely forested canyon.) Hiking through chaparral, toyon, and lichen-covered oaks, descend 1.2 miles to Canyon Trail. Bear right, walk 0.25 mile, then turn left on Stevens Creek Nature Trail.
Soon you'll cross a footbridge over Stevens Creek and travel alongside the stream. Ferns, Douglas firs, and oaks line the banks of Stevens Creek. This lush riparian area is in extreme contrast to the open grasslands of Black Mountain. After crossing two more footbridges, bear right to stay on Stevens Creek Nature Trail, now on single-track.
The final 1.2 miles of the trip are an easy, streamside ascent with plenty of shade and switchbacks. You'll climb out of the stream canyon, head back into the grasslands, and wind up right back at the stone bench and overlook where you began the hike. Turn left to walk back to your car.
Pay a visit to the San Andreas Fault, one of the world's longest and most active earthquake faults, at Los Trancos Open Space Preserve, directly across Page Mill Road from Monte Bello Open Space Preserve. A trail brochure interprets visible fault signs along the 1.5-mile San Andreas Fault Trail. If you want to hike longer, you can connect to two outer loops on Franciscan and Lost Creek Trails (total mileage is three miles). The trails lead through a shady bay and oak forest along Los Trancos Creek and a flower-filled stretch of grasslands.
From I-280 in Palo Alto, take the Page Mill Road exit west. Drive 7.2 winding miles on Page Mill Road to the signed preserve entrance on the left.
Or, from the junction of Highways 35 and 9 at Saratoga Gap, drive seven miles north on Highway 35 (Skyline Boulevard). Turn right on Page Mill Road and drive 1.7 miles to the preserve entrance on the right.
Information and Contact
There is no fee. Dogs are not allowed. Bikes are allowed on most sections of this loop. Free trail maps are available at the trailhead, or by download at www.openspace.org. For more information, contact the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, 330 Distel Circle, Los Altos, CA 94022, 650/691-1200, www.openspace.org.
From the book Moon 101 Great Hikes of the San Francisco Bay Area by Ann Marie Brown. Excerpted by arrangement with Avalon Travel, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011. For more information, visit http://www.moon.com.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication